The New Orleans City Planning Commission voted Tuesday to oppose a plan to convert a parking lot in the Central Business District into a hotel, rejecting the developers’ request for waivers to allow the building to be taller and have more floors than the zoning law allows.
The commission voted 6-1 to deny the waiver requests.
The final decision is up to the City Council. The site is in Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell’s district.
The developers want to build a 148-foot, 14-story Virgin Hotel at Baronne and Lafayette streets. A hotel is a permitted use for the site. But buildings there are limited to 125 feet and 10 stories under the Central Business District Height and Floor Area Ratio Interim Zoning District , or IZD, that governs the site.
The developers and architect for the project said they need to exceed those requirements to make the project financially feasible. They are proposing a 183-room property with a cafe, restaurant, bar, spa and rooftop deck with a pool. The hotel would join the family of Virgin Hotels, a brand launched in 2010 by the British company Virgin Group Ltd.
Texas-based Gatehouse Capital and DAG Development, of New Orleans, are the project developers. The same team of developers was chosen by the city in 2013 to redevelop the vacant World Trade Center building but then was unable to agree with the city on the terms of a lease.
Meeting the IZD requirements would cause the hotel to lose 69 rooms, Mathes Brierre architect Todd James said. Such a reduction would prevent the project from becoming “any type of workable model,” he said.
Several residents of two nearby condominium buildings criticized the project at Tuesday’s meeting.
Andrew Marsh, who lives at 528 Baronne, said the hotel would not be consistent with the character or proportions of other buildings in the neighborhood. He and other residents also expressed concern about the proposed location of the hotel’s two loading docks along the 17-foot-wide Lafayette Street.
“That alley is a passageway. It is a small passageway,” said Charlotte Giacona, who also lives in the 528 Baronne condo building. “It won’t support two loading docks.”
Giacona said the one-way street already has a difficult time accommodating the garbage trucks that traverse it.
Lafayette Square Association President Jack Stewart urged the commission to honor the IZD, which was created in 2012 and expanded in 2015. He said the rules were crafted after more than a year of discussions by a committee including both developers and residents and were adopted by the council after a public hearing.
The IZD put the 125-foot cap on developments in that area, where previously there had been no height restriction.
The City Planning Commission staff and the Historic District Landmarks Commission both recommended denial of the requested waivers.
Commissioner Robert Steeg said the issue was not whether a hotel is a proper use for the site but whether the project complies with zoning rules in the area.
Though the question wasn’t before them, other commission members raised concerns that the addition of guests loading and unloading luggage and valets receiving and returning cars would cause more congestion on that stretch of Baronne Street, which recently was reduced to one lane for motorists and another for bikers.
Commissioner Nolan Marshall, however, said he was willing to grant the waivers in support of efforts to “activate that block.” Marshall, who lives in the CBD and works for the Downtown Development District, said he believed the hotel proposal complies with the “spirit of what the IZD set out to accomplish.”